AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson recently met with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower. AT&T’s proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner was not a topic of discussion during the meeting, which centered primarily on job creation, wage increases and “the policies and the regulations that stand in the way of them creating further jobs,” said incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Even so, the Time Warner deal loomed large. “The No. 1 thing for AT&T right now is the merger, so it is obviously in the background and coloring every single one of these discussions,” said Gigi Sohn, a former senior adviser to Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “The Trump people are smart enough to know that.”
The careful positioning of Thursday’s meeting illustrates the difficulties AT&T faces in pushing through the Time Warner deal. The acquisition, announced last October, is the first test for huge mergers in the new administration, which was voted in on a populist wave that is skeptical of such deals because of the job losses that often follow.
But beyond a barometer of antitrust, the deal is also being closely watched for Mr. Trump’s strong-arm approach to media — particularly to organizations whose coverage he dislikes. Mr. Trump repeatedly targeted CNN during the presidential campaign. This week, he criticized the network for reporting on a briefing by intelligence officials to the president and the president-elect about an unverified report linking him to a Russian campaign to influence the election.
The meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Stephenson, which included Bob Quinn, AT&T’s head of lobbying and regulatory affairs, appeared to do little to defuse tension. Right after the meeting, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to again attack CNN, which he said is in a “meltdown” and suffering from declining ratings.
The proposed AT&T-Time Warner deal also is set to face fewer regulatory eyes than originally thought. While the Justice Department is reviewing it, AT&T and Time Warner said last week that they did not plan to submit an application to the F.C.C. Time Warner said that after reviewing the satellite and other telecommunications licenses for its television networks, it concluded they did not merit F.C.C. scrutiny, Time Warner said in filings.